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  1. Bit by bit: Making the virtual real

Bit by bit: Making the virtual real

The impending boom in virtual reality is driving innovation in hardware and networks

By: | Published: March 8, 2016 12:13 AM

I recently used the Samsung Gear VR headset, my first long stint with the smartphone-powered virtual reality (VR) rig since I played with it during the launch in Berlin a couple of years ago. The device hasn’t changed much, but it’s sure become consumer-centric and the content is very easy to access. But there is a good reason why at the core of this VR device is a smartphone—and that is the fact that VR content now is almost completely online and needs to be streamed in front of your eyes.

In fact, there is consensus that smartphones will be integral to the VR experience for many years to come. While initially VR devices will be powered by smartphone screens, as big set-ups will be prohibitively expensive, over the years they will also become the primary source of content. As we wait for the first phones which will natively be able to record 360-degree content—yes, I am convinced this is going to happen soon—there are already add-ons such as Samsung Gear 360 and Ricoh Theta that can record such content easily for you to share on social networks like Facebook that already support immersive videos.

While using Gear VR I realised one thing—you need to be online all the time for the full experience. Yes, there is the option of downloading and storing content on your phone, but you will need to go online to get a better experience. This is where VR starts straining the networks. For instance, a one-minute video I shot with the Theta camera was about 200MB, at least ten times of what it would be if shot on a good smartphone. So you will need high-speed internet streaming and processes that handle this pressure to use VR effectively.

“VR has become a big buzzword and that is the kind of immersive experience the young consumers in a country like India will demand,” explains Sunil Lalvani, India head of Qualcomm. He says they have seen VR emerge as a “key requirement” for at least some smartphone manufacturers even in a market such as India. “That’s what Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 brings to the table,” he says about the company’s first VR-capable chip. He says it will take time for VR to trickle down to more affordable phones, even though companies such as Lenovo are testing the waters with limited experience headsets like Ant VR.

While VR was one of the larger themes at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, most were trying to get the better of the problem that an explosion of virtual reality content will pose for the carriers. That is why there is already a lot of stress being put on 4G+ and the impending 5G era.

Tim McDonough, senior vice-president of marketing at Qualcomm Technologies, says mobile will take VR mainstream. “Mobile will certainly be the consumption platform and content-creating platform for VR,” he says, adding that it is still early days for this technology. “You will see more chips with the capability as the requirements for ensuring a good experience are very high,” he adds.

At the moment, Qualcomm is among the few companies that have an understanding of VR right from the device to the network level. Senior director of marketing Peter Carson says companies will need to look at new possibilities like carrier aggregation which lets them tap into unlicensed spectrum to offer higher data rates. “Getting to those kinds of speeds is going to enhance experiences like VR. But the problem is how to condense this content. And with increasing dependency on the cloud for this kind of content, connectivity could end up being a bottleneck that keeps you away from that content,” he explains. Carson says the more we depend on high-quality connectivity like gigabit class LTE, it will make cloud storage seem almost like mobile storage because of the speed at which you can access that storage. “Having a better pipe will help the evolution to continue and support a wide range of entertainment content,” he says, underlining why they were trying to invest ahead of the curve.

So how has the technology progressed to cope up with the boom in video, and now VR, content? Carson says the new Qualcomm X16 LTE modems are already at 500 times the download speeds of what 3G was offering initially and 10 times of the what the first 4G devices were at. While this modem will initially come in Wi-Fi, but smartphones with the technology are more than a few quarters away.

However, even these unprecedented data speeds will be insufficient for the extremes of VR. The Nokia Ozo spherical stereoscopic camera records 500GB of content every 45 minutes—about 11GB a minute. While Nokia is pitching this for movie production, some of this content will need to be consumed online. This is why one of the biggest contributions of VR could be moving away from volume-based billing of data.

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